Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Geriatric Espionage? (Reviewing Chile's Oscar Nominee)

In 1970, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky released El Topo, a surrealist movie that seemingly created the Acid Western genre and was a Mexican entry for the Oscars (it was filmed in Mexico, but ultimately not nominated). This year, Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s El Agente Topo (The Mole Agent) is most emphatically not a sequel, but this rather differently offbeat picture earned a nomination for best documentary, even though it didn’t take home the prize last Sunday.

On one level, The Mole Agent is a real-life spy movie in which a private detective recruits Sergio Chamy, a charming 80-something widower, to infiltrate a nursing home where the detective’s client suspects her mother has been subject to elder abuse. This involves a crash course in surveillance techniques and technology for Chamy, whose sociability swiftly inserts him into a milieu where women outnumber men by ten to one.


Alberdi’s production crew filmed the entire work, with permission (but perhaps some deception), at the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco in the Santiago suburb of El Monte, in an area I’ve visited as a lesser-known wine region.  The finished film is an outgrowth of what was originally a more general focus on Chile’s aging population—by the end of this decade, it could be Latin America’s fastest-aging country, but that’s not what foreign tourists see.


With some minor shortcomings, the Hogar de Ancianos appears to be a well-kept facility, with comfortable accommodations and pleasant gardens, that provides attentive services to its residents. Chamy eventually frustrates his handler by insisting that there is no abuse but, in the end, he concludes that loneliness and familial neglect are major issues that don’t get the attention they deserve. When the popular Chamy finally departs the home, the result is more like a feel-good comedy than an exposé.  In fact, it hardly feels like a documentary at all, and Alberti has stated that there’s interest in doing a fictional version—which she herself won’t do because she’s too invested in the one she’s just finished.

El Agente Topo is available for streaming on Hulu (with English-language subtitles, free trial available). 

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